LOS ANGELES — To prepare for their first pandemic-era production, LA Opera took COVID-19 precautions up an octave. Everything they knew had to be adapted. Rehearsals for the production of The Anonymous Lover started on Zoom and eventually moved to socially distanced spaces around the Colburn School.
Singing cheek to cheek? Definitely out.
Rather than hide from the restrictions, director Bruce Lemon, Jr. says he chose to lean into them.
“There is definitely a lot to work with and work over,” he said, “but problems are just solutions you haven’t found yet.”
Of course everyone wore masks, which soprano Tiffany Townsend says took some getting used to, even when they weren’t singing. It forced the singers to communicate more with their eyes, but one thing that wasn’t masked, she says, was their joy at being together.
“It’s a joy to have other people in the room,” she laughed. “We can’t really see each other smiling but I know we’re smiling on the inside.”
Masks were only the beginning.
Everyone involved had to undergo rigorous amounts of testing. Sometimes the singers marked their songs. Other times they just mouthed the words, silently emoting. Masks could only be removed for the last part of rehearsal and afterward, everyone had to leave the room immediately. This allowed time for the space to air out before the next day’s rehearsal.
There’s also a COVID compliance officer on site making sure the rules are being followed. “Let’s make sure we don’t linger in aisles,” he reminded the company prior to dress rehearsal.
“It’s been nice to have a COVID compliance officer telling us, you now, this is the parameters,” Townsend said, and then listed a few examples. “You can’t sing toward each other, you have to sing at an angle.”
The six singers in the production are all members of LA Opera’s young artist’s program. This is Townsend’s debut and she’s thrilled to be singing the only surviving opera by composer Joseph Bologne.
“As a Black woman getting to sing an actual Black composer’s music is everything and it’s amazing and I’m very grateful for the opportunity,” she said.
According to LA Opera, Joseph Bologne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born in the French Caribbean. His mother was enslaved. His father, a French plantation owner. Bologne spent the bulk of his life in France, where he was a renowned fencer, a war hero in the French revolution, and a composer and conductor in the late 1700’s. So why has his legacy been lost to time?
“There’s no other way to say it, it’s because of race, because of racism,” Lemon said. “There’s tons of artists that you don’t know about and you only don’t know about them because they’re not white men.”
Lemon grew up in Watts and is honored to be bringing Bologne’s work back into the spotlight and to be doing it with the LA Opera, where he once worked as a supernumerary.
“As a Los Angeleno, as someone who is born and raised and of this city, that’s extremely important to me,” he explained.
He’s also happy to be expanding access to an art form that is typically, he says, price restrictive.
“Opera tickets are really expensive,” he pointed out, “but this performance is being provided to people free online so the reach is very wide.”
At a time when the country is divided, politically and physically, he believes art is vital to our communities, “to be able to see what you can do and be inspired by that.”
Times of turmoil have always inspired artists to get to work, he says, and he thinks the resilience and creativity being shown during this struggle will only enhance the work going forward.
“You’re coming to it with a whole new experience, a whole new set of skills that you’ve pulled from this time of, like, tension and peril, you know?” he said. “It’s pretty beautiful how we adapt and evolve through hardship.”
The Anonymous Lover is the first production offered on the company's new LA Opera On Now platform. It premieres on November 14th at 5pm and will be available for streaming through Nov. 28.
For information, visit LAOpera.org/Lover.